As I emerge from the shop with two Callippo I pop open the can of cider and down the ice cold goodness in a couple of quick swigs whilst walking to the aid station, much to the amusement of the marshals. I’ve covered around 29 miles and on the home stretch. Despite being September the sun has made an appearance for most of the day and I’ve been craving something other than luke warm water. Double checking my watch and it looks like I might have a chance of a sub 6 for the event. Certainly not a great time for a 35 mile course but given I’ve been nursing a dodgy knee since Wednesday and completion was doubtful I’m pleased with the overall progress. What matters more than the pace and the time is running an actual event, and where I belong, at an ultra, in the countryside, and mildly drunk. This is ultra-running and I’ve missed it.
Being an ultra I have (as legally required it seems) bumped into my running mate Jonathan. It’s been over 2 years since he carried me for the last half of the Thames Path and persuaded his good wife to drive me home at the end (my designated driver having retired due to early signs of renal failure because ultras are so much fun you risk organ damage) and we bump into each other regularly at events. I’ve not raced over a marathon distance since Lakeland 100 over a year previously. For 2020 my longest races have been half marathons so to be back at an ultra and hear him shout my name is a welcome breath of normality in what has been an unusual year.
2020 was going to be a stellar year. With a running coach and sports massage package, along with fancy 3D gait analysis I was going to smash London Marathon in April. Surfing the wave of training gains I was finally going to run the Shires and Spires 35 mile ultra which has been on my to-do list for some years but never quite lined up with commitments. After a short recovery I’d ramp up the training again and go back to the Lake District to teach the Lakeland 100 a lesson to make up for the previous pitiful stumbling performance. The year would finish off with a bucket list marathon at New York with the wife and kids before we looked forward to Christmas and the festive parkruns. An excellent year of running was forecast. Nothing short of a global pandemic could stand in my way.
Covid 19 happened and the world in general fell apart. London marathon was postponed (and finally cancelled when they admitted the impossibility of having 40k people in one race), Shires & Spires, Lakeland 100 and NYC also deferred or cancelled and running any event seemed a dream.
Return to Racing
With the relatively small numbers at trail events they began to make a tentative return in August. Centurion Running held a socially distant, Covid secure 100 miler at the North Downs way and everything was reported to go well.
Go Beyond managed to secure a new date for the Shires & Spires on 6th September and all signs looked good. I was finally going to race!
As luck would have it many of my mates had entered the re-arranged Spires event and we’d put ourselves forward for the team award as a mixed group of five. I was initially hesitant about being the weak link but after some up and downs months of training and minor niggles I put together two or three decent weeks of running including a respectable performance at the Ultra 5k (5k every hour for 5 hours).
The week before the race I manage my best Tuesday tempo session of the year and started one of my faster runs at the Wednesday 9 mile loop. Confidence grows. I feel good. Maybe I’ll have the experience and the fitness for this ultra. Towards the end of the run Maff comments on how well I’m doing and finally injury free. He curses me. Half a mile from the end of the run my knee feels a bit off and reminiscent of the issue I had post LL100 where I could barely walk for 2 weeks. Bugger. Thanks Maff.
Three days of no running and it seems a little better. Liberal application of deep heat and a knee brace mirrors my Chicago Marathon race preparation that saw me get around. Maybe this will be OK? Nothing else for it but to strap on our race vests and assemble in the car park in a quaint Northampton village ready for the start. Or at least three of us are ready. Jen and Ellie are still in the toilet queue and they emerge to see the runners set off. Quickly dumping jackets in the car they join Matt, Maff and I and we set off after the main pack with clubmate Stephen in tow. My knee is not sore but definitely a little stiff and I wonder if this hectic pace to catch the main pack is entirely the best idea.
Much of the first 8 miles is on quiet country roads. Excitement for the first race of the year is evident and everyone seems to be running far too quickly for an ultra. 35 miles is certainly not a long ultra but as our group records another successive sub 8min/mile I’m confident we’re going to regret them. As we pass other clubmates Neil and Jon we’re moving through the pack far too quickly.
Stephen wisely drops back and somewhere around mile 7 I decide the effort level in the gradual rising temps is too high at the pace and not helping my knee so let them drift ahead. I joke with some runners from nearby Buckingham that given it’s Maff’s first ultra I might well see them again further along the course. They’re visible on the horizon until around mile 10 before a sharp turn into some fields and they’re gone for good. Thoughts of catching them up are now laughable. Whatever Maff may lack in experience he evidently makes up for in fitness, and with guidance from the other three to make up for his inexperience this event is just too short to level the field. I resolve to keep a steady pace and hopefully not pull down the team position too far with a hobbling performance.
I’m not normally one for pain relief in a race, I’d rather know if something hurts but in this instance I already know it’s my knee so take a paracetamol to dull the throbbing and pass a half marathon in a respectable 2 hours wishing I’d packed some headphones to enjoy some music as I’m basically on my own.
Races are better if you chunk them down. Nobody runs 100 miles. You run 10 miles to the next aid station, 5 miles until you’re a third done, or 7 more miles until you only have a marathon left. For me I’m aiming for halfway. Using the GPX track on my watch I’m expecting 34.6 miles so 17.3 miles is the next target I focus on as an irregular stream of runners come past. There’s at least four mates behind me I can try and latch onto as they pass so can plod on and enjoy being outside running. In a real life actual race – none of that virtual nonsense here.
The course is probably one of the most picturesque I’ve done. Beautiful rolling farmland interspersed with villages so neat and pretty they could almost be movie sets. If you were looking to show an American ultra-runner a quintessential Britain this would be the route to pick, winding though nonchalant sheep and curious heifers before cutting past a stone cottage with leaded windows and a thatched roof.
Somewhere around halfway I stop at an aid station and douse myself liberally in hand sanitiser as it comes out with such ferocity I accidentally sanitise most of Northamptonshire. As I turn to leave Jon and his mate Ray arrives having inevitably closed the early gap and we run together much of the rest of the race, gradually surging and dropping back as we ride the waves of ups and downs that make ultra-running what it is. Marathons are a science, ultras are an extended car crash.
Munching down a banana and paracetamol I wonder how the other teammates are getting on. I have a history of under fuelling on ultras so make an effort to eat and drink regularly and often. It’s not food, it’s fuel. The negative effects of forgetting to eat are felt long after the mistake and can be difficult to resolve. With Covid concerns the aid stations are a little more sparse than what you’d be used to with just bagged sweets and bananas so limited on options. Fortunately my teammates had a veritable picnic in their race vests so should be no such issue. Mostly for me I’m craving a cold drink.
At the aid station at Long Buckby I manage to miss the village shop and we run on with the tepid water refills again. 24 miles down and on course for around a 4.5hr marathon which seems about right for current fitness and only one working knee which is making the 359th stile of the event a little tricky to clamber over. Mostly we talk the usual running nonsense and press on, pausing for the occasional navigational check. One field has no clear path across and we stomp over freshly ploughed dusty soil looking for an exit. A few fields later they’ve cut the silage down and let it sit in heaps including over the path and we wade through calf deep grass. When your knee is not great what you really need is a bit more dead weight to drag forward with each step.
As checkpoint 5 comes into view I’m just catching back up to Jon again when I spot the corner shop and dive in (remember a mask for shops kids!). There’s only one customer so I grab the lollies and cider whilst he concludes a long chat with the staff on whether they kept any copies of yesterday’s Daily Mail. The delivery of all of Murdoch’s Saturday papers was interrupted by an Extinction Rebellion protest at the printers and he’s clearly missing his regular dose of Brexit propaganda. Finally he leaves disappointed, forced to make up his own narrative of how the EU are trying to make our great PM look like a floppy haired fool and I can pay and get out the shop. Final aid station done and six miles left. The cold cider has done it’s job and I pick up the pace feeling refreshed and mildly drunk. Nothing can stop me now and I resolve to catch Jon and bring in that sub 6 hour. I had no real game plan when entering the race but it’s been good to have something to focus on.
The plan works and I’m closing down on the group ahead including Jon. I reach the back of the pack just at a farm with barely four miles left, using my specially honed skills of eating Callipo mid-run without spilling any as I’m a god damn ultra-runner and riding the rollercoaster of energy and emotions well.
Up ahead is a group of runners with one laying on the floor. Someone’s overcooked it. As we get closer I’m torn between disappointment and relief to see it’s my team. I bid Jon farewell and amble over. Maff is laying down admiring the sky whilst the rest are assembled around him. From the body language it’s clear there is no urgent medical issue. Their stance is more one of increasing annoyance and frustration than a panicked need to learn CPR via a Youtube video or call in mountain rescue.
Evidently Maff has decided to get the full ultra-experience on his first outing and has subjected all to a full on ultra-tantrum due to lack of fuelling and an ambitious pace. If only a wise and experienced ultra-runner had told them sub 8s was too fast. If only anybody listened to me. Schadenfreude is a wonderful thing. I know the trough of ultra-despair well and he’s deep in it. In his best impersonation of a made for TV war movie he implores us to “go on without me, I’m done for, save yourselves, I don’t want to be a burden”. Evidently I missed the previous game of ‘poke food in his mouth and hope he doesn’t spit it out at you’ which has tested their patience.
I’m a little annoyed at the rest of the team. Not for failing to look after him, but If only they’d have rolled him into a ditch and kept going I could have run past his contorting body in complete ignorance and got that sub 6. Now I’m going to have to help and give up my spare Callippo.
Fate obviously wants him to finish though. His phone has locked out so he can’t even ring anyone for a lift. He has to finish. Jen and Matt pick him up as I clearly wasn’t going to. They broke him after all.
We set off on a slow walk. Every runner that passes asks us if we need assistance. Some offer salt tablets or water but none have a can of ‘get over yourself you big idiot’ that we really need. Gradually Jen coaxes him into a run and I recall several years previously when she endured my own ultra-tantrum for a full 25 miles of the Autumn 100 and goaded me forward with regular suggestions to “try for a little jog”. Ultra-running is great isn’t it? Like normal running but more painful.
With two miles to go we find a pub and dive in to administer a half of Guinness which completes the restoration and he sets off at a pace that I’m not sure I can match. If he beats me after this I’m going to have my own tantrum. We’re joined by Jon who is surprised we stopped mid-race for a pint. It’s like he’s never met me before.
Finally 6h30 after setting off we cross the line and manage to secure third place in the team event. A mere pub stop and half hour tantrum away from first place. Although tired Maff seems pleased to have finished. He’s certainly earned the medal more than the rest of us and doubtless a few beers. He probably hasn’t yet realised that is his first, but certainly not his only ultra.
Afterwards in the pub Maff has made a full recovery whilst I shuffle around like a man with one working leg.